In 1872, at the age of 13, Carrie Chapman Catt noticed her father and the hired man leaving their chores, dressing up and going to town to vote. Her mother was left behind. Catt’s commitment to women’s suffrage began that day.
Twenty-five years later, as their president, Catt molded the National American Women Suffrage Association into a tight political machine to finish the battle. The fight had been decades long — led by woman including Susan B. Anthony, who for 50 years took her advocacy across the country by stagecoach; by women such as Alice Paul who was jailed, beaten and force-fed for her beliefs. Finally the time was ripe — the nation was shamed by the women’s treatment for their dedication to a just cause.
Forty times a women’s suffrage amendment was brought to Congress. Forty times it was held in committee without a vote. Catt skillfully led the campaign to convince Congress and on Feb. 13, 1920, the 19th amendment passed. Ratification six months later came in a cliffhanging vote in the Tennessee legislature when one young man cast the tie breaking “yes” — voting his mother’s wishes.
Even before that historic vote, six months prior — Carrie Chapman Catt had organized the League of Woman Voters. Calling it “the mighty experiment,” she described the league as “A group of…women who want not merely to vote, but to vote for something. The vote is a tool with which to work, and for years they (women) have struggled and sacrificed to secure it. Now, they want to build a better world for their neighbors and their posterity.”
For 95 years the League of Women Voters has been known as a nonpartisan organization that is a recognized force in molding political leaders, shaping public policy and promoting informed citizen participation at all levels of government.
Tackling a large range of public policy issues, league members worked successfully on legislation that led to the enhancement of Civil Service, Social Security and the Food and Drug Act. They advocated for the formation of the United Nations and fought for free speech.
League President Percy Maxim Lee, testifing before Congress against Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s abuse of congressional investigative powers, said “I believe tolerance and respect for the opinions of others is being jeopardized by men and women whose instincts are worthily patriotic, but whose minds are apparently unwilling to accept the necessity for dissent within a democracy.”
Equal voices as well as voter education and voting rights remain hallmarks of the league’s non-partisan work. In the 1980s we hosted the presidential debates and the leagues advocacy was instrumental in passing the National Voter Registration Act (Motor Voter), the Voting Rights Amendment Act and the Help America Vote Act. That commitment remains strong today as the league is in the courts and on the ground in many states, working to ensure equal voting rights.
Here in lies the league’s strength. We are a grassroots organization with a national organization and reputation, but much of our work is done in local leagues. The League of Women Voters of Bellingham/ Whatcom County has tackled issues from “How to Have a Civil Discussion” to “Diversity in our Judicial System.” This year we’ve held programs on the future of print media and local mental health care options and we brought together the varied parties in the debate over water rights. Of course we haven’t neglected voter education — we hosted televised forums with the Congressional and legislative candidates and educated voters on the gun initiatives and the county charter review process.
We thanked our elected officials with a party in December and sent observers to public meetings of our councils and the port. Many hours were spent at public hearings and our league wrote comments for each proposal on the fossil fuel projects being proposed for our state.
Perhaps our founding mothers would most appreciate our six-month commitment this year to the study of women’s economic security issues in our county. The report, which represents countless hours of work, will result once again in a platform for the league to advocate for those who may not have a voice. It seems a fitting way to celebrate the 95th birthday of an organization formed to “continue the fight” for equality and justice for all our citizens.